Baldung Grien’s St. John on Patmos (1511)

The St. John who wrote Revelations, the last book of the New Testament, on the island of Patmos was an appealing alter ego for Renaissance artists. He experienced two numinous visions which he described in letters to the seven Churches in Asia. The visions make little sense on the literal level because he made no attempt to appeal to the literal reader or the masses. The island on which St John had his visions, moreover, is a neat metaphor for a poet's own isolation from those who think literally.  

As with many images of the apostles, pen in hand, Baldung Grien used writing on paper as a visual metaphor for his own act of drawing or painting. The pose, of course, is similar and writing, when used as a metaphor for drawing, might be made with the same tool. Even as a metaphor for painting, the length and thinness of a quill resembles a brush.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Hans Baldung Grien, St John on Patmos (c.1511)

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The artist also gave the saint who shares his name (John=Hans) enough of his own features to make him convincing as his alter ego: blond, curly hair, eyebrows at the same angle, a different nose but a similar mouth and chin. Just as artists used face fusion in portraiture for centuries without being noticed, they did so in religious and other types of paintings too. And the artist made St. John effeminate as well to indicate that a purified mind is always androgynous.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Left: Detail of Baldung Grien's St John on Patmos
Right: Detail of Baldung Grien's self-portrait from The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian

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Directly above John's head the only vegetation on the tree - green, again like his name - hangs from a branch in the pine-like form of the artist's own head. The pupil of his left eye is indicated by a circle in the wood, visible on enlargement. On the other side only the eyebrow is indicated by a branch; the eye itself is open air. 

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Captions for image(s) above:

Left: Detail of Hans Baldung Grien, St John on Patmos (c.1511)

Center: 

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Grien perhaps used another now-lost self-portrait as his prototype given that the moustache and other features move in different directions. Nevertheless, its position above the saint combined with its color and forms strongly suggest that the branches have taken on the form of Baldung Grien's hirsute face. Baldung Grien, in becoming a saint, has become at one with nature too, as we all are at our deepest level.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Hans Baldung Grien, St John on Patmos 
Hans Baldung Grien, Self-portrait 

Click image to enlarge.

In representing himself as his namesake saint with direct visions of the divine, the artist implies that divinity is inside us, not out. The creative moment comes, when having purified his own soul and become saint-like, the divine spark inside him conceives - or allows him to transcribe - the very image we are looking at.

Notes:

Originally published online, 13th March 2011.

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